SAN DIEGO -- Dennis Conner stood with one hand on his hips and the other on the steering wheel of Stars & Stripes.
It was midway through yesterday's race at the America's Cup defender finals and Conner was feeling both awestruck and vulnerable.
Bill Koch's America3 had just roared alongside with such velocity that Conner was helpless to halt his opponent's advance.
"That boat is like a rocket ship," Conner told his crew. "It is so fast that there is nothing I can do. It is amazing they could ever lose a race with the thing."
That the best-of-13 series is so close -- America3 leads, 5-4 -- is testimony to Conner's clever and tenacious nature.
But enterprise and trickery can only take one so far when the opponent is fast enough to leave blisters on the Pacific Ocean.
"The more I see America3, the more I am convinced we are going to see the Cup stay in America," Conner said after the one-minute eight-second loss. "Bill has done a terrific job. It's a great boat and they sailed it especially well today."
America3 did yesterday what it had not done very often -- win in light wind and sea conditions more favorable to Stars & Stripes.
"We did some considerable tweaking of our boat and sails overnight Tuesday," Koch said. "But to save you the trouble, I'm not going to bother you with the details of what we did.
"I don't want Dennis -- or the challengers -- to know."
America3 needs to win two of a possible four remaining races to unseat Conner as the incumbent defender. The latter, who has )) represented the United States in the America's Cup finals all but once since 1971, has to win three of four.
Il Moro di Venezia, which continued its amazing comeback with a 20-second triumph over New Zealand, had only to beat the Kiwis today to earn the challengers' berth.
Italy trailed, 4-1, Saturday in its first-to-five series before New Zealand had a bowsprit-aided victory annulled.
Now, the Kiwis, who lost only five of 30 races during the challenger series, have dropped three in a row and desperation is setting in.
New Zealand syndicate chief Sir Michael Fay benched skipper Rod Davis and tactician David Barnes yesterday. The replacements -- Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth -- had not been aboard the boat in a race in five weeks.
L Italian skipper Paul Cayard was not surprised by the change.
"Things like that happen in the America's Cup," Cayard said. "Things are going well for the underdog and it makes it even more tense for the favorite.
"I think a desperate maneuver like this is indicative of the pressure of an eight-year, $100 million campaign that might be at its end."